I keep thinking I need to go to a big demonstration—for immigrants, for human rights—but when I hear recordings on NPR a part of me recoils. The chants feel too intense, too assaultive, beating against “them.” It isn’t what I want to be. It doesn’t feel nonviolent. People say Mother Teresa refused to go to anti-war demonstrations, but if we ever held a rally for peace, she said, she’d be there. I want that, a sea of humankind, all swaying and singing “Give Peace a Chance” (hippie osmosis from my childhood). What happened to Gandhi, to King? What happened to peaceful resistance? Can’t we make up songs to sing instead of screaming angry chants? Songs that connect us, singing together in the streets, on freeways or tarmacs, our voices carrying across cities, drifting across the sea. I read that in the wake of the havoc and vitriol President Trump scattered across Europe earlier this month there was a music festival in London. Paul Simon and James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt were all there. Each one of them spoke up. None of them named the president, but every one of them voiced messages of encouragement, messages of love. I’m comforted to know these musicians who I’ve loved all my life were over there, counterpoint to our president’s chaos and hatred, letting people know there are other voices in the United States. Voices that want the world to know we aren’t all ugly and mean. We aren’t all afraid of women, of Muslims, of all the dark-skinned peoples of the world, or foreign tongues, or English spoken with a Mexican accent. We aren’t all afraid of gay marriage or body ink or people in wheelchairs. We aren’t afraid of learning to include all genders, all sexual preferences, to stand up for the rights of children and for a woman’s right to choose. What we are afraid of is losing our humanity inch by inch, of letting what binds us all together be whittled away little by little until it’s too late. What we are afraid of is allowing another holocaust. I wish I’d been in those quiet crowds at that music festival, singing along, soothed. I wonder if James Taylor sang “Shed a Little Light“?
[Editor’s note: Looking at my title now in the light of day—”We Aren’t All Afraid”—I think I might need to change it. Because maybe we ARE all afraid. We’re just afraid of very different things. And some of the same ordinary things, too.]
The psychic reading was so disturbing I had to do a cleansing ritual the next day. She came highly recommended, so it took me by surprise. I’m not sure I’ve finished sifting through it in the three weeks since we spoke on the phone. She rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning, and part of me wonders if I should have ended it right from the start, if that would have been the best way to take care of myself. But I didn’t. Early in the call I told her I was feeling defensive, but nothing changed. She told me I was intuitive and intelligent. But the rest felt like what I wasn’t doing or what I was doing wrong. The morning after the reading I tried to sort it all out. I’ve always felt validated and encouraged by a psychic reading. This one just made me feel bad. Most of it seemed true, but much of it felt unimportant, or it didn’t resonate, didn’t fully lodge in me. The way it was delivered hurt me. I cried it out. Then I got my rattle and burned some sage and sang a little song. I danced about my trailer, shaking my rattle, waving the burning sage, singing my exorcism. May I be clear of this. May I know what to take forward and what to discard. May I be cleansed of what feels wrong in this. The best I can tell, she was mixing up her own opinions with the information she received. I think much of what she told me was accurate, but I question the depth of it, the value. She insisted my father had a mustache. How could that matter? She told me I was lost, and maybe I am. But I didn’t feel a connection, didn’t feel any compassion. I think somehow she shamed me, but I understand another person, a person wired differently, may not have felt this way. The best parts, I think, were not getting lost in blaming her, and in trusting myself enough to honor my feelings, to reach for healing. And I trusted my instincts enough to take care of myself. When the notes she took during the reading came in the mail, I started to put them on the fridge in case I needed the reminders in the future. But I reached for the wooden matches and burned them in the kitchen sink instead.
I’m not done talking about this practice of recognizing and appreciating our goodness. I’m pretty sure it can be a gateway to accepting myself, a door I’ve been seeking for ages. But I don’t have much experience with it yet. Do you make a point of doing this? Do you appreciate even the tiny human decency kinds of things you do every day like holding the door open for a stranger at the laundromat or letting someone with only a couple of items go ahead of you in the grocery store? I want to start. I do notice when things make me feel good. When I exchange a real smile with someone out in the world, like last week on the creek path when a woman passed me and really smiled at me and I smiled back. Or a month ago when the man holding only one bottle of beer saw me walking back and forth at Ralph’s dejected by the long lines and insisted I go before him in his line. But these are their good things, not mine. And do I really want to write about the good things I do? I know when I’m in a group it makes me uncomfortable when I’m thanked for something little I have done, some small voluntary act. It goes back to high school, I think, squirming in my desk when the teacher praised my work. I don’t like being singled out. I don’t want to be made separate from the other people in the room. I don’t want anyone to feel less than. (Sometimes at the meditation center when the volunteers are being praised, I feel a little bit like that, because I am not volunteering, almost as if I am being shamed by comparison.) I think part of me would rather keep my small acts of kindness to myself. But I am a writer, and I want to tell my stories, so maybe this will be a part of it. If I can capture the way it feels, like those unexpected moments of intimacy when we pass a stranger on the street, then I want to do that. And I want to cherish my own small moments, let those moments of recognition work their magic on me. I want to let them finish melting the last of my unkindness toward myself, again and again, as often as it takes.
Longing to me is about being in a body, like Zora Neale Hurston and our little mudballs, wanting to “show our shine.” I think the earth herself holds a kind of longing in her, a kind of yearning or ache, a sadness, maybe. To me it’s all wrapped up together, these clumps of earth us, what it means to be a being in a body, longing to belong, the impermanence of things in this life we live.
I dream of wearing a sign. Something like, “I’m so sorry. We want you here.” Sueno de tener un letrero que dice, “Lo siento mucho. Les queremos Uds. aquí.” Quiero decir, “No se vayan.” I want to say don’t go. Quiero decir que millónes mas gente no le votó como ellos que votaron para él, nuestro “residente.” I want to say three million more people voted against him than voted for him, our “resident” en la casa blanca. Quiero decir esto es su país, también. This is your country, too. Please don’t go. I speak to my favorite flower vendor, watch him take it all on his broad shoulders, this weighted world. I see him shrug, something I’ve admired for years, the way so often someone who grows up in Mexico can make so much room inside themselves for acceptance. “Vivimos la vida que viene,” he says. We live the life that comes.
I remember sitting in the courtyard, during that same conference call with Sylvia Boorstein,looking at the magenta blossoms on my sprawling succulent in the orange pot. The blooms sprang to life the morning after our terrible windstorm, the greater part of a day and a night, gusts from 70 to 80 miles per hour, the worst I’ve lived through. Through it all I was working on a deadline to develop a website for my July writing retreat. It was impossible for me to give it my undivided attention. No matter what I did I couldn’t separate myself from my fear. The walls of my trailer shook and rattled in the wind. I said metta. I prayed all of us would be safe and unharmed–all the birds and small wild things, me and my neighbors inside our tin cans. But the next morning, when I saw how my succulent had burst into wild magenta bloom in spite of that terrible onslaught, that unbelievable battering, I thought, we need to be like this succulent. We need to respond to what is playing out now on our national stage with our own bright blossoming. Indeed, in the pink pussycat hats, the women’s marches, the way our judicial system is responding, the immigration protests, the country is doing just that. I have been especially bolstered by the fact that our “founding fathers” created our democracy with safeguards. I hadn’t counted on that. And again, I am proud to be a Californian in the midst of it all. I see our legislators and our governor trying to stand up, trying to do the right thing. I read an article the other day about a man in Los Angeles who is offering trainings to local activist organizations, teaching the self-care skills people will have to master in order to not be completely overwhelmed by the needs they are trying to meet now, particularly for those who serve the undocumented immigrant community. He sits them in a circle, places items for an altar at its center, let’s them talk about the toll these times are taking. And I want to honor each of them, every one of them, of you, for standing up. For being in the front lines. For giving response. For being our own fierce spring.
Buddhist teachings keep me guessing. Depending on the teacher and the topic, I am reassured or doubtful, suspicious or yielding, intrigued or cross-eyed. Often things just make sense, ring true to me, familiar, like the life I’ve been living for decades. Sometimes I wonder if I’m missing something. Do I only think I understand, have been observing these same things in my life and in the world around me all these years? I’m not sure what makes me doubt myself, but doubt arises. And I’m not sure what inclines me to always calibrate. Is this something I already know? Do I only think I know it? Maybe it’s an old fear, not being enough. Maybe it’s only hubris. Or maybe it’s tied to the way I bristle over sentences that begin with, “Those of us who’ve been practicing for years—” The speaker means a formal sitting practice. But what if we’ve been practicing “off the cushion” all this time? I love sitting practice. I suspect it accelerates things. And it feels like a luxury, all that stillness, all that not doing. Of late I tend to divide my time between the “long breathing in, long breathing out” I’ve been learning and my metta practice. Since I decided to offer the writers retreat this summer in Joshua Tree, I have to bring myself back more than usual, my mind and heart busy dreaming up ideas. I’ve begun sitting with my eyes open more and more. I think I may be giving myself more permission to do what feels right to me, become less concerned with following the rules. But there’s still a part of me who wants to “do it right,” a part of me who wants to know if I’m delusional about the things I think I know. The other day people were talking about feeling one with the mountain. That seems easy and natural to me. But on the surface, I don’t buy the “no self” spiel. Because there is a me. There is my portion of spirit housed in this body. Unique in place and time. Never again will the two be joined, this same form and spirit. But it doesn’t stop me from feeling one with the mountain or the moon or the desert rat dying in my courtyard on a summer afternoon. Or with the ant I stepped on yesterday because I must have hurt him when I was sweeping the courtyard. I put my sandal down on him, my chest aching, to end his tortured movements. I may not buy the “no self” deal, but I do know we’re all one, the mountain and the moon and the rat and the ant—and me.